You and me could write a bad romance . . .”
—Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”
Jane Eyre is an incredibly dark, sensuous, mysterious, and passionate work of obsessive gothic romance: a film every bit as beautiful in its prose as in its poetry. It reminds us that audiences still love the epic melodramas of the Golden Age. In subject matter and story material it recalls the bizarre, gothic masterpiece of obsession and macabre Rebecca. In theme and in spirit it reminds me of the ever-wonderful psychosexual thriller Black Narcissus. Truly, this film is not of this generation. In a time when audiences prefer to have everything spelled out to them and nothing left to mystery or the imagination, Jane Eyre forces us to think and imagine in ways few films do. It creates a sense of foreboding and chilling uneasiness by merely filming a room in a certain way and in a certain light. As a filmgoer who enjoys a great piece of dark morbidity I say, “Thank God for this new adaptation of the classic novel!”, for I was beginning to hypothesize that all the truly macabre films had died out and the only dark and obsessive movies out there were the cheap torture-horror flicks like the wicked Saw and its exponential amount of sequels.
Jane Eyre is of course an adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë classic concerning the eponymous heroine here played by Mia Wasikowska delivering a near-silent yet powerful performance. At the beginning we are introduced to the young girl as a timid, yet willful soul who through several tragedies has become an impenetrable fortress of aloofness. She arrives at an enormous British manner called Thornhill in order to serve as governess to the ward of the wealthy Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), master of the house. Judi Dench plays the kindly housekeeper who helps Jane learn her way about the great house, but it is evident to both us and Jane that something is not quite Kosher about the house. Mr. Rochester is as mysterious and impenetrable as Jane is, yet he seems to see something in her, and after a series of inexplicable adventures together including a fire with no perceivable cause and an attempted murder of one of their guests the two become quite good friends. However, Mr. Rochester seems plagued by some unspoken terror or guilt, and Jane begins to wonder what haunts her newfound acquaintance.
The filmmakers have chosen to tell the story slowly, taking their time not to rush anything and careful to pay attention to details. Director Fukunga uses every shot to its uttermost effect. His choice of images weaves a beautiful lyric poem, yet in place of rhyme and meter he uses angles and frames. The film is a poem of the visual sense. Still, for all the time spent on versification the screenwriters also managed to tell a dark, frightening, and riveting story. As I said, the film reminds me most of 1940’s Rebecca and 1947’s Black Narcissus: a gothic psycho-melodrama about love and repressed passion. The film’s color timing is very dark (to the point where sometimes we can hardly see anything on screen), contributing to the overarching atmosphere of dark obsession. In some ways, Jane Eyre could be a thriller. It is mysterious and complex, yet many of its scenes are downright scary. This is not your typical 19th-century women’s romance novel. This is no Sense and Sensibility nor is it Pride and Prejudice. No, this tale is a far grimmer and mysterious, almost like a haunted house story. The house is certainly haunted by something, whether by something real or by Mr. Rochester’s seemingly unhappy past is not to be revealed in this review.
There is a wonderful scene when Rochester and Jane first meet in which he questions her ability to be a good governess. He asks her many odd questions using a queer phraseology that implies something more than what the questions propose. Then he asks her, “What is your tale of woe?” Unsure how to answer, Jane goes over her childhood: orphaned and sent to live with an aunt who sent her to a dreadfully unpleasant school for girls. It is a scene that seems to sum up both Jane and Rochester’s characters in a few words. Both have a sad history to tell, yet cannot find anyone to whom to tell it. Over the course of Jane’s stay at Thornhill as a governess, the friendship slowly blossoms into an enigmatic love between the two and finally Rochester proposes. Initially Jane protests, but within a matter of minutes she happily accepts. A round of thunder cracks above them as they embrace, perhaps foreshadowing what is to come. Like anything else in this grim saga, their engagement begins happily, but Rochester’s apocryphal past begins to undermine the bond that the two have formed. Soon, Jane finds herself—as the song goes—caught in a bad romance.
The film caught my attention from the very first shot and never let it go. With each unfolding plot point the film enthralled me more and more and I found myself quite unable to turn away from it. It’s one of those films that at some point ceases to be a movie (at least in the mind) and becomes something true and meaningful. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what the message of this particular tale is, though I’m sure there is one. Perhaps it’s an anthem for pessimism, or an early feminist saga. Whatever the ultimate theme of the story, the filmmakers certainly did a good job relating it. We must always remember that film is a visual medium and must preferably tell its story with as few words a possible. Jane Eyre does this to the uttermost, never using a word unless absolutely necessarily. Instead the director chose to use his camera as a means to tell this rare and beautifully dark story.
I have a lot of respect for Jane Eyre the character and now Jane Eyre the new film. This is a wonderfully crafted tale unlike many things you’re likely to see these days. It is gruesome and frightening without being bloody. It is psychotic and obsessive without any mass-murderers. It is tense and sensual without being pornographic. Perhaps this was an exercise in the virtue of temperance. The best films always leave us wanting more and Jane Eyre leaves us wanting much more. At the end we want many more answers and much more explanations than the film is willing to give us. But that’s us typical greedy humans wanting knowledge that is not for us to know. Certainly it was made with no small budget, but I would imagine the same director and screenwriters could have made just as good of a film with much less money. Jane Eyre is a film for previous decades. Fortunately, audiences still enjoy the dark and macabre, the gothic and the obsessive melodramas of 19th century romance. So, applause for this new version of an old tale. It is beyond me to find any significant errors here. What a truly poetic and elegant film this was.
BBC Films and Focus Features presents
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Su Elliot, Amelia Clarkson, Imogen Poots, Sally Hawkins, Romy Settbon Moore. Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content. Release Date: 11 March 2011